MONTPELIER – With the threat of swine flu looming this fall and winter, advocates for children and working families say a law increasing access to paid sick time for workers is more important than ever.
The Vermont Paid Sick Days Coalition, a group of nearly a dozen labor and advocacy organizations, say they hope the Green Mountain State will be the first in the nation requiring most employers to offer paid sick days to their workers.
Supporters say the threat of widespread infection from the H1N1 virus, commonly known as the swine flu, makes the issue even more critical because many families cannot afford to take time off from work to care for sick relatives.
"If more families had paid sick days to use, it would be far less likely that they would send their children to school when they are sick," said Dr. Jan Carney, associate dean for public health at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. "And that means it would drastically reduce the chance that the illness is spread to other children or staff."
UVM recently sent out surveys to the parents of 1,135 Vermont children in nine elementary schools in four counties. Of the 31 percent of forms they received back, a majority without paid sick days said they were more likely to send a child to school who is ill than risk losing a paycheck to stay home with them.
No state yet mandates paid sick days for workers, according to Sheila Reed, legislative and community advocacy coordinator for the group, Voices for Vermont's Children, although a handful of cities do.
Department of Labor statistics from two years ago show that 57 percent of Vermont workers do not have paid sick time, she said, a number that equals about 106,000 people. She said that high number is likely a product of the large number of small businesses the state has.
"Many, many other states are looking at this issue, too," she said. "We anticipate that there will be several states soon with bills under consideration in their legislatures."
Sponsoring legislation next year will be Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre, who has been a big supporter of labor issues. Poirier said his bill, which likely is to undergo changes as it moves through the committee process, would give paid sick days to anyone working more than 30 hours each week at a job that they've been at for at least one year.
Under the proposal, for every 30 hours a person works, they earn one hour of paid sick time to be used when a child or relative falls ill. The total number of sick days would be capped annually; right now that cap is proposed at 56 hours.
Poirier said the H1N1 virus will affect children and the elderly more than other populations, and he is worried that a family could slip into economic despair if a person needs to take time off and care for someone suffering with the flu or another bad illness.
"Unfortunately, the people who do not get paid sick time are generally on the low end of the wage scale," Poirier said. "They work at Walmart or another retail store and make $9 an hour. They can't afford to take time off."
Despite the fact the Vermont House and Senate are controlled by Democrats, pushing through labor reform bills often can be tricky. Attempts at increasing the minimum wage, for example, faces strong opposition from the business community, Republicans and conservative Democrats.
Advocate say they already are laying the groundwork to temper that opposition, including reaching out to Vermont's business community to explain the benefits of healthier and more productive employees.
A recent report for the Institute of Women's Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., poverty and welfare organization, showed that businesses in Vermont who offer paid sick time can save money – about $2.45 per employee each week — by reducing the chance that other employees, or even customers, might catch a cold a worker brings to the office.
"We're explaining to the business community that this is good for them," Reed said. "Allowing sick employees to stay home will increase their health, happiness and productivity. This could be really good for business."
A representative of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce could not be reached for comment late Monday afternoon. A call to Gov. James Douglas for comment was not returned.
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